Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

So, A Couple of Notes

with 7 comments

Late in the day.

First, I think there’s a misperception that I’m bashing libraries–I’m not.  I know something about the constraints on how libraries operate these days.

My question is this–when did we, as a society, decide that libraries had to run this way?

I’m fairly sure that, back in the dim Fifties, nobody at my small town library was totting up how often books were taken out, at leasst not on a regular basis.  The mission of the public library used to be different than what it is now–just like the mission of the university used to be different. 

In the last thirty years or so, we seem to have slid everything into an accounting model.  Why?  When did we do that?  And is it really a good idea?

To answer a question, however–no, I was not totally homeschooled.

It was just that all through my school life, until my senior year in high school, my father took me out of school for the months of January, February and March while he moved the entire family to Florida.

He didn’t usually stay down South himself for all that time–he had a Real Job in a Law Firm–any more than he stayed for the entire summer, when we were also there.

But for those three months each year, I was home schooled.

Sort of.

He started off getting tutors for us–apparently, I used to eat the tutors for breakfast, so he went on witha tutor for my brother and left me to myself.

I read my way through his library, and then did all my math homework in the three days before we came North again.

My father’s library was like the public library, in that I tended to pick up books I knew nothing about just to give them a try–the thing you can’t do on interlibrary loan, really, which is why that (which I’ve used often in my life) doesn’t answer to what I was talking about in my first post.

The year I was twelve–in seventh grade, because my father, who had been skipped ahead when he was in school and hated it, absolutely refused to allow me to be skipped ahead–anyway, the book I picked up was this little brown book of philosophy.  I tried it for a day, put it down, and my father ended up asking me what had happened to it.

“I decided not to finish it,” I said.  “I don’t think I understood it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.  “Try again.”

So I did, and we talked about it.  It turned out that I’d been understanding it just fine, I just hadn’t believed what I was reading.

That was Beyond Good and Evil, by Frederich Nietzsche. 

I’d never have thought to go looking for a book like that.  I might never have read any philosophy at all if I hadn’t just happened to pick that one up.  And I still have that little brown-covered edition.

But I’m with whoever said that schools don’t teach the classics.  They didn’t in the Fifties, either, although the rationale then was sex–Madame Bovary?  No, no–not for children.

The rationale these days is that all that stuff is “too hard” and “not relevant.”

But we don’t want to get me started on schools again.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'So, A Couple of Notes'

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  1. ‘In the last thirty years or so, we seem to have slid everything into an accounting model. Why?’

    If a society needs a way to decide what is important or useful or worth spending money on, and has begun to move towards a very egalitarian, diverse, and maybe even splintered culture, there are not a lot of ways to make the decision. No one can argue for funding such-and-such because it’s essential to our common culture, or even a great part of one segment of our culture or because a few people consider it of enormous importance or even because its traditional. What else is left? You can try to make such decisions entirely by popular vote, or you can try to assign them value in the market – which is related, actually, because if something is very popular, it will make or be worth money. Oddly enough, unpopular or rare cultural practices and beliefs can very easily be seen as elitest and totally worthless, unlike certain other rarities.

    Of course, a result of this is that anything of minority appeal – like CBC – is eviscerated because their low rank in the market *proves* that they provide nothing of value. And we get supposedly well-educated medical specialists in Quebec saying that euthanasia is a good idea because people support it (or say they do in a survey that wasn’t described in much detail).

    Money and popularity work hand in hand to make choices and decisions that are no longer made by reasoning or appealing to cultural traditions. And this has been happening over at least the last 20-20 years, and no, I don’t think it’s a good idea. We do need fiscal responsibilty, but some things don’t work well with a market model, and education is one of them. So is providing access to a broader and more interesting selection of news and music and interviews and plays than most people are willing to pay for.

    Of course, for the politician who wants to go beyond the fiscal method of deciding where to spend public money, there’s always the appeal of the honking big public building, possibly with his/her name on it – the hockey rink, convention centre, maybe a sports field or a golf course. That’s not nearly the same as pandering to a bunch of elitists who want to listen to all that painfully awful old-fashioned music!


    14 Oct 09 at 7:02 pm

  2. ‘In the last thirty years or so, we seem to have slid everything into an accounting model. Why?’

    Possibly because we have computers and can do it. Every book in the public library that I use is barcoded and scanned when borrowed.

    Its now possible to keep a complete record of how often a book is borrowed. Before computers, that would have been very labor intensive.


    14 Oct 09 at 8:36 pm

  3. As I remember from courses in the history of public libraries, initially they emerged from women’s clubs. Many of these libraries charged fees for membership since they weren’t government sponsored. Their mission at that time was to uplift and bring culture to the masses. It was theirs to decide what constituted culture. They were prescriptive and now they are perhaps more descriptive, rather like dictionaries. In a perfect world all libraries could fulfill both roles.


    14 Oct 09 at 8:44 pm

  4. Thank you for your answer to my home education question. It is encouraging to read about your father’s approach–it certainly seems to have served you well. I don’t think there is any substitute for a teacher (especially a parent) who believes in you and takes the time and effort to help you believe in yourself. Having spent several years as an elementary school teacher (in both public and parochial schools), home schooling my own children has taught me valuable lessons about education that I won’t forget should I return to a traditional classroom someday. Okay now, no more talk about schools. ;-)


    14 Oct 09 at 10:41 pm

  5. In Illinois, we started keeping statistics in the late 1980s. The country had been in a recession for years, and library budgets were being slashed drastically, sometimes to the point of closure. We had to have something to show to the keepers of the money to prove that the public was using the library, something a lot of them regarded as a low priority in the hierarchy of government services. (Got a budget shortfall? Well, nobody uses the library anyway. Take it from them; nobody will miss it.)

    After the crisis more or less passed, we kept it up (it is a requirement to get any state funding). It can be useful in justifying more staff and more funds for books (it’s not our imagination we’re busier–look at the statistics!) Keeping statistics which have to be done by hand is a pain (we have to do it twice a year, and are doing it right now) but in the long run, it’s probably worth it. In the current economic climate, there are a lot of libraries in serious budgetary trouble. I suspect there would be a lot more if we weren’t able to prove that we’re being used heavily.

    Lee B

    14 Oct 09 at 11:03 pm

  6. Libraries are one of our great resources. I’m always amazed by how under utilized they are. Probably since they’re free, less value is placed upon them. I wonder what would happen if they started charging a small membership fee, like a video store or country club. I’ll guarantee you that the perceived value would rise, even though many would be up in arms over the change!

  7. I’ll go with the pursuit of “quantifiable” achievements, and to remove “subjectivity” from as many decisions as possible: “See! I deserve the raise! Circulation in Children’s Literature is up ten percent!” “Something has to give, and circulation in Scientific & Technical is down eight percent.”

    But I think it’s also worth noting that libraries as repositories of our common culture are relatively cheap. If the critical books came to as many as 200, and every one needed another work for explanation or reference, we’re still only talking 400 books–maybe $10,000 new, and two 4X8 bookcases would hold them comfortably. If they were checked out continuously, and were only good for fifty readings each, you’d be looking at $5,000 a year to maintain the collection. A modern university library or a serious municipal library can be an expensive proposition, and legitimately so–but it’s not the price of the Loeb Classical Library or the Federalist papers which is wrecking the budget.


    15 Oct 09 at 4:00 pm

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